Ex Libris

Where do our childhood books go? I know many of mine are still downstairs in the storeroom. Most though have gone. When we moved house 30 months ago I gave away 6 large packing cases of books to someone who intended to open a book cafe. I have not seen it open and I suspect it never will. That was a sad day for me. I rarely part with books. I have always preferred to own my own rather than use a library. I know the economics are stupid but somehow I just like being surrounded by books. The idea of a hidden library containing every book ever written appeals to me.

The childhood books are gone and in their wake have emerged growing and groaning shelves of books on business, natural history, local history, biographies and sports.

Each year Hong Kong hosts a book fair. Each year I vow to go and never have the time. I fear the crowds and the crush. And my patience does not extend to queueing for more than 15 minutes. With 950,000 people visiting the fair last year and more expected this year a visit is an intimidating prospect. Many people take with them suitcases on wheels, such is their expected haul. This year I again expressed a desire to go and being now all but retired I had no excuses. I did try to wriggle out but Mrs. H insisted today is the best day to go – just one day left and a typhoon warning in place. The weekend crowds back at work. So off we went. We used the Park & Ride option and I took my backpack rather than a roller-case.

I was alarmed at the length of the queue if this was a good day. However it was slowly moving. Well controlled the only point at which I was dismayed was when we arrived at what I thought was the front. Sadly it was only the front if you were with children or qualified as elderly. I tried to convince Mrs. H that we were elderly and have the minds of children but she felt it better to go with the compos mentis adults . That meant another loop around the bridge before we finally entered the exhibition centre. Entry was a miserly HK$10 for adults – just over a dollar in US currency, under a pound for you Brits. It rises after midday.

I headed straight for the stand with the entomology books. Straight is probably misleading as like all sensible (= stubborn) males I refused to use the floor plan, preferring instead to follow my instinct. I guessed rightly that a special interest stand would not be in a prime location and that we would have enough room to browse in peace. I was right. Eventually. The man in command was Yiu Vor, with whom I had previously corresponded by e mail. We chatted for a good half hour, I collected a number of books to which I was entitled gratis as a member of the HK Entomological Society and I bought a few too.

We veered off insects and on to fungi. I bemoaned the lack of a decent reference text on HK fungi. Yiu Vor promptly said, but no, there is a good book. It may not be here at the fair but you can get it. Now I was, I admit, sceptical. I had heard mention of this mythical book before and after telephoning all over the place I was fed up with being told ‘out of print’ or ‘unobtainable’, ‘not stocked any more’. Yiu Vor couldn’t remember the publisher but narrowed it down to two in his mind and promptly offered to walk me to their stands. Two minutes later the book was found. Three copies were on the stand so I bought two. A massive HK$99 price tag did not put me off and I was delighted to find them discounted to the book fair price of HK$79. So for US$20 I had 2 pristine copies of the text for the price of a couple of bottles of plonk. As a forced-teetotaler I thought that was a good deal.

We wandered further after thanking Yiu Vor. We found yet more stands selling books on the environment and natural history. By this stage I had bought books on ‘true bugs, fireflies, diptera / flies, bees and wasps, butterflies, a butterfly site guide, the Antarctic, my fungi books and finally a book on landscape photography by Ed Stokes.

The young people manning the HK Discovery stand were a real treat. Two had been to Antarctica and shared some of their experiences with Mrs. H, trying to allay her fears of sea-sickness, hypothermia and a lack of rice on board the ship. I “liked” their Facebook page on the spot and added two new FB Friends. They were enthusiastic beyond measure and spoke great English even though the website seems to be Chinese only.

What I took away from the fair was that though the number of people engaged with the survival and beauty of the planet may be small in Hong Kong, the knowledge, passion, commitment and energy are all abundant. I left a lot happier than I arrived. I do not believe I could cope with a first day or even a weekend day at the book fair. Crowds and I don’t do well together. But once inside the hall there was plenty of room to wander round, lots of bargains, some hard to find works on offer and a splendid group of people. So maybe next year we will go back……….. but only if there is a typhoon warning up!

My challenge now is where to put all the new books. As a temporary measure I have moved some of the less well-thumbed books down to the storeroom, where they now sit on top of others, gathering dust and hoping to avoid the humidity. Space has thereby been created for the new influx. My study bookcases are stuffed to the gills and I need a better solution soon. Perhaps the answer is to move into a TARDIS. Who knows?

Christmas is coming, Ama-zon is getting fat

I had a splurge this morning. I am now well into Julia Lovell’s The Opium War, which I have to say is more digestible than the Rushdie, and there is a queue waiting to be read.

Although I still have Children of Dust (Ali Eteraz) and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (Mohammed Hanif) waiting on the Kindle I went onto Amazon at lunchtime and splurged on 4 new additions to the digital library:

The New Decade by George Friedman is a work setting out how the US Presidents should  approach their next decade of power. I am not a great political animal but I find the interplay between the developed and developing world so fascinating and important that I think this is worth tackling.

Then I plumped for Steve Jobs. I don’t know much about the man and he seems worth exploring as one of the foremost entrepreneurs of recent years.

I was then delighted to discover that more of Kamila Shamsie‘s works have been made available for the Kindle. So I downloaded Broken Verses.

Finally I spotted an eponymous biography of Catherine the Great, by Robert Massie. I have looked before for a biography of this historic figure, without joy. Massis’s work is therefore most welcome and timely. It has strong reviews all round.

I have been writing my own (very short) retrospective, simple advice for those starting out on corporate life. It builds on a training presentation I gave to colleagues before I left my final job.  In it I say:

I was asked recently to recommend three books that an aspiring reader should search out. My suggestion was to find a mix rather than focus on one particular area. I see no special virtue in reading only text books or books intended to rev up your intellectual horsepower. It is a bit like saying that only classical music is worth listening to. I love Baroque music but I will equally happily listen to blues, rock and a multitude of other genres. I have listened to Brendel play live and I have listened to Clapton live. So with reading. Be open-minded and explore areas new to you. Do not eschew lighter matter. For example, I enjoy reading Ngaio Marsh, P G Wodehouse and Kamila Shamsie, authors from different eras and cultures. If you have a hobby, read around it. Do read the FT (or the WSJ) and The Economist. Explore the blogosphere. There are some high quality bloggers out there. Most however probably don’t merit your readership. Be very selective. You need to see life from different perspectives, not all of which you may like or agree with. But if you see the world through only one lens you will be culturally poorer, less effective as a global resource and blinkered in your outlook on life. 

© Andrew Hardacre 2011

This is the philosophy that drives my reading. What drives yours?

And to finish here are just 4 of my favourite reads.

Worth reading more than once.

In the beginning was the word

I can never see or hear the word Panorama without also hearing Sibelius’ Karelia Suite. Work it out for yourself, if you can. Its a 50s/60s thing. I mention this because finding a panoramic for the blog header proved more challenging than I expected. The first effort was a scene from Angkor Wat but the observant reader will note that I have switched to a local scene. Taken at 7am it shows a tranquil scene off the sea wall of Sai Kung as I walked down to the chaos of the preparations for Dragon Boat day. This is the full image, uncropped. You get a few more fluffy clouds at the top. I’m so generous.

I sat down with my laptop yesterday and wanted to write a blog entry. I could not squeeze out a word. Not one. Maybe I have been reading too much. On a flight to Dubai this week Cathay kindly gave me a seat (business class) with a broken entertainment system. So 8 hours or so of good old fashioned reading replaced Top Gear episode 587.  Not quite so old fashioned as I had no book, only an iPad. But that left me with the happy choice of about half a dozen unread tomes plus lot more to re-read if the mood took me. So “On China” by Kissinger was finished. And a fine read it is too. For someone who was alive during the Mao era it is fascinating reading. So many major events played out on our (black & white) TV screens but only now do we begin to see them with the perspective of time. Kissinger clearly has a formidable mind even if he has a face to sink a thousand ships. His writing is far more accessible than I had imagined. It is not a book that falls into the category of “can’t put it down” but it is certainly doesn’t need any great effort. Towards the end it seems to me to be a little more rambling, almost as if he is unsure how to finish off such a remarkable work. Whilst I was reading it I spotted a small spat between him and Lord Patten in the FT about Kissinger’s alleged views on the cultural revolution. I can certainly see why Henry was irked by Fat Pang’s loose interpretation as the CR  surely falls firmly into the category of ‘unmitigated disasters’. I recommend this book as I do believe there are lessons in it for how we should view and think carefully about China today.

Quite coincidentally, and at the risk of being accused of name dropping, I was sitting next to a Royal Sheikh at his majlis on Thursday and he started to talk about a recent meeting he had had with Lord Chris. As a resident of HK, his highness seemed to assume that I must know CP quite well and I dared not disillusion him. So I mentioned his predilection for egg tarts but I think it is fair to assume that they were not on the palace menu when Fat Pang visited. I do find Arabic hospitality enchanting. The charm and courtesy of my host and his family were rare finds in the modern world. There is much to the saying that “travel broadens the mind” and as I approach retirement I am glad I have had the chance to see six continents for business and pleasure. My regular visits to Pakistan give me a view of the country that is far removed from that of the CNN lens. I have never felt threatened (possibly due to the man with the kalshnikov sitting next to me) but I have felt a warmth that I would not expect to find as a Pakistani travelling in the opposite direction.

I think a photo is due:

Again, this is Sai Kung. We are at the starting line for the 100m dash as everyone competes to see who can get out of the rain quickest when the storms break. Yesterday it was clear as I stood on the pier that we were soon going to be at risk of a thorough drenching. The light and the skies were wonderful. Dark sheets of low, leaden, corrugated cloud hung over the town. The kites bounced around in the  air currents and the outgoing revelers on the party boats looked anxiously upwards. Not a good time for a booze cruise. And down it came. I love it. Apart from the complete inability of people shorter than me (most) to realize that their umbrellas run the twin risks of poking my eye out and drenching me as they close them in mid dash across the finishing line.

A couple of fine fellows failed to notice the rain. Either that or they decided the alternative of being compressed to a pancake in the crush was simply too dreadful. Of course it depends against whom you are being crushed.

If my recommendation of Kissinger doesn’t attract you then I can offer an alternative, which falls into the category of “unputdownable”, at least for me. This is by the wonderful Spanish author, Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I read the much lauded The Shadow of the Wind some twelve months ago and discovered that he has since written a prequel. It probably does not quite reach the same heights (a lofty ambition if ever there were one) but The Angel’s Game is nonetheless a fine yarn. Perhaps it is wrong to say that books are the hero but they are core to the plot. The debate rages in my own mind whether I am going astray by reading e books rather then good old paper ones. I suppose I believe there is room for both. Some books just can’t be digitized – they need to be touched, caressed, worshiped and I delight in buying old first editions or antiquarian books with good provenance back to an author or owner. Some have the odd jotting or scribbles in them, which are always fascinating. However the confines of a Hong Kong home mean I can no longer accumulate hardbacks without considering the space. So many books now do arrive via the ether and I am happy to enjoy them in much the same way. If the Kindle or iPad makes reading more accessible, trendy or cheap and more people hurl themselves into the maelstrom of the written word then I am all for it. Heavens to Murgatroyd, they will even be writing next!

Finally, a confession. As an owner of 3.5 Leicas (an M3, an M9, an X1 and a Panny LX5) you would think the last thing I need is another camera. But, after vehemently swearing I would not buy the new Fuji X100 I succumbed today. Willpower with the breaking strain of a KitKat, as my estranged brother might say and frequently did. A quick fumble with it before the battery gave up the ghost has already revealed some really nice features and a few less so. I can’t believe it will be much different from the X1 but of course it is an F2 not an F2.8 and it has better high ISO output it seems. Can you ever have too many cameras?